Nature: September 2004 Archives

Alaska - Part Deux

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After a night's sleep in a dank smoking room at the Holiday Inn-Anchorage, we were heading south on the Seward Highway. It's a pretty spectacular drive and we were fortunate to have clear blue skies to enjoy it. I kept on cruising, passing every RV in sight, save for a stop in Girdwood for a breakfast bear claw. The next stop was for food again--Yoli's Deli in Seward--for some lunch to pack on the hike. Now it was off to the true destination--the Harding Icefield Trail at Kenai Fjords National Park.

Driving up to the trailhead, I caught the first glimpse of Exit Glacier. At the trailhead, we had our first and only real encounter with Alaska's infamous bugs. Thankfully these were of the non-biting variety and just tiny flies, but annoying nonetheless. While swatting away at the flies, we laced up the boots and powered on the2-way radios. And it was off to the Harding Icefield Trail--about 8-miles round trip with a 3,000 foot vertical elevation gain. The corporate guy played the role of the Kenyan marathoner racing to the front of the pack. Us plebes remained a comfortable distance behind while maintaining communication via walkie-talkie. We also often used the radios when within arm's reach of one another...much to the apparent annoyance of other hikers.

The trail cruises parallel to Exit Glacier until you're eventually sitting above the Harding Icefield--named after Marion, Ohio's own Warren Harding, the first American President to visit Alaska. It had been a solid seven years since I was last on this trail. As a high school student I spent part of my summer working trail crew and living right on this very trail. This all brought back some sweet memories as I came upon the old campsite (helluva view, eh?) and work-project. And here's another view of the stone-retaining wall we built. It was lunchtime at the top as the corporate guy was amazed at how large the Dagwood Sandwich he ordered was--until that moment when I filled him in, he wasn't hip to the Sunday comics and Blondie. Considering the all up-hill climb to the top, it was a leisurely paced jaunt back down.

Back at the car, we began the quest for accommodation. The bug situation turned us off of the camping idea. After doing a cost-benefit analysis of a hostel and bed & breakfast, we went the yuppie route after one to be unnamed member of the party proclaimed "money is no option." We gorged ourselves at the Salmon Bake Restaurant which hyped itself as having cheap beer and lousy food. Neither was the case.

On day two in Seward, we dropped some dough to board a boat and check out the fjords portion of Kenai Fjords. It was an 8-hour trip, but as far as really touristy things go, this was pretty sweet and worth the benjamin. Sadly it was at about this time that my digital camera began to sputter out on me. So I have no visual proof of seeing breaching humpback whales and orcas. Not to mention the diving puffins and barking sea lions. But I can tell you that it was sweet. The final stop before returning to shore was Holgate Glacier. The boat idles here for twenty minutes while everyone aboard crosses their fingers to see the glacier calve (i.e. a chunk of ice fall off). We lucked out and an enormous piece of the face plummeted into the water. Brilliant!

Back on land, we hit up the Harbor Street Creamery for what proved to be a spectacular peanut butter milkshake. Our time in Seward and Kenai Fjords was numbered. It was back on the road to Anchorage for our flights home. Along the way, the radio was tuned to Girdwood Community Radio. Soon on the air were the Nervis Rex, a local ska band. Just imagine a really bad version of Offspring and you've got the idea. The stoner DJ was soon on the mic complaining of stolen bicycles in town. Just a hilarious rant followed by a timely announcement for an upcoming Girdwood Land Use Committee Meeting. I soon after pulled off the road in a vain attempt to immortalize the final sunset of the adventure...here is the result of my final picture. Ansel I am not.

Hey, Bear!

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My Anchorage to Seattle flight was a full one and I found myself in the 40th row--that put me on the plane at about 12:25am. I was in a middle seat next to an extremely wide woman who couldn't even put the arm rest between us down. Ugh...it was late and I was exhausted so I thought it would be easy enough to sleep through the discomfort. The punishment continued as mechanical issues kept us on the plane until a delayed takeoff...of 4:00am. Ugh.

Ultimately, that's all just a blip on the radar. In addition to the fat lady on the plane, over the course of the journey I rubbed shoulders with other animals such as: brown bears, ptarmagins, arctic ground squirrels, caribou, humpback and orca whales, puffins, sea lions, otters, and even a few elusive wolves.

It was near midnight last Thursday by the time I had the keys to my rental Neon in hand. After an exhaustive search, we found a 24-hour Taco Bell for a foul midnight snack. George Bush's nomination acceptance speech lulled us to sleep as we spent the next 5-hours at the Days Inn before awakening for the 230-mile drive to Denali. The corporate guy in the group managed to explode a breakfast burrito in the gas station microwave. Absent another b'fast burrito, he deemed a microwave beef chimichanga a suitable substitute. The nanny had a Mocha Frappucino and a Red Bull. I went with a Hostess 8-pack of chocolate mini-donuts. Luckily, we made up for the subpar morning eats with some killer halibut for lunch at a restaurant near the park's entrance.

Denali's backcountry is pretty unique compared to your average park. There are no private vehicles allowed inside the park and there are no maintained hiking trails. The park is divided into 43-units with quotas for how many people can camp in each on a given night. Due to our late start, we were facing a sort of sloppy seconds as everything is first-come and first-served. After much debate, we settled on Unit 8--Polychrome Pass. The park ranger issued us our BRFC (Bear Resistant Food Container, if you're not in the know) and we hopped on a 3:30pm Camper Bus to take us out into the depths of Denali. It was on this 3-hour bus ride we met Benny and Jenny from Tejas. They were a pretty ordinary couple, but for whatever reason, we found ourselves talking about them the rest of the trip as if we've known them for years.

Shortly after seeing a grizzly cub running up the hillside, bus driver Chuck pulled the bus over and we were suddenly on our own in the wilderness of Unit 8. We cruised down a drainage ditch and skipped over braids of the slow running/almost dry East Fork River. Walking on untouched tundra is pretty slow going. In the end we were averaging just a shade over 1.25 mph with our packs on. The sun was quickly approaching the horizon and the temperature dropping in the process so we pitched the tents and started to settle in. I sparked up the backpacking stove to cook up some cheddar and potato soup--which proved to be a nice warm meal but a complete headache come dishwashing time. Before I was able to get a cup of hot cocoa, the nanny kicked a clump of dirt into the pot and dashed my chocolaty dreams. We ran into all kinds of problems getting all of our "smellables" in our government issued BRFC, but we flexed our liberal arts educations and improvised the best we could.

On the snowy open tundra, the temperature slipped below the 20-degree mark as we huddled into one tent. At this point we were all just trying to get the feeling in our hands and feet back to normal. Throughout the night, my feet constantly fluctuated between toasty and numb...quite annoying. We all wondered out loud how Benny and Jenny might have been coping. Alas, morning came and we were quick to get our show on the road and warm up. We were delighted to retrieve all of our cookware and the BRFC without a hint of them being fiddled with by Yogi Bear (they were kept 100-plus yards away from our tents). No time for sod-filled Swiss Miss, we scarfed down some Cliff Bars and started cruising back to the main road where we would thumb down another green Denali bus.

Eric the bus driver was a dry, straight-talking, completely matter of fact kind of guy. He rocked! The bus we caught was filled with about 10 non-camping tourists who caught this bus at 6:30am from the Park HQ. Our new bus-mates told us how they watched grizzly bears taking a morning jog on the park road right in front of the bus and better yet, saw a pack of wolves dining on a caribou just a stones throw away. Eric's description to us of witnessing the wolve's feasting was a stoic, "it was sweet". This bus seemed like good luck so we made the loop and rode back with them to Park HQ. Earlier on our hike back to the road, I was rambling to the crew about how much I wanted to see a wolf in the wild. Eric's magic bus made that happen. First we caught a glimpse of the caribou carcas. Then a quick scan with the binoculars found two wolves in the distance still loitering around. I don't know how this happened, but before we knew it, there were private vehicles pulling up to the scene with professional photographers hopping out and setting up their tripods. This scrawny black wolf was itching to grab another bite of his caribou but was no doubt terrified of the sudden peanut gallery that developed. Regardless, I was thrilled to see those bad boys.

A few hours later, we were back in the parking lot loading up the Neon. Good times. Along the way back to Anchorage, we hit up Angela's Heaven in the village of Trapper Creek where we gorged ourselves with delights such as reindeer sausage pizza. The place was run by a German woman who moved to this town of 300 several years back. Not a one of the businesses we patroned during our trip were the products of Alaskans--either Euros or lower-48ers were the entrepreneuers. Anyway, after cleaning ourselves up in our smoking room at the Holiday Inn, we ended up eating even more delicious pizza late night in Anchorage at the Moose's Tooth. The next morning we would be off to Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park. More on that tomorrow...